Today, I trip across the beginning of William
James's intellectual odyssey. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Fifty years ago I began my
own long and still unfinished education by building
model airplanes and studying drafting. That's why a
small event yesterday set off bells in my mind.
A lady at the desk in a Harvard library casually
handed me the copy of Lardner's Handbook of
Natural Philosophy I'd asked for. I opened
it and found an astonishing signature in front. It
said: "William James, 1858." This was the very book
that the father of the philosophy of pragmatism
read when he was only 15.
And what was this odd book that young William James
read? Lardner wrote popular handbooks on everything
from railroads to Italian history. This richly
illustrated volume deals with mechanics -- the
mathematics of machines. We read Newton's laws of
motion and materials science. Then we move on to
There's a section on clockwork and another on the
clockwork movements of stars and planets. The book
dances with gears and escapements. We study
stamping machines and the great newspaper presses
just coming into being. James is no passive reader.
In the back, he's penciled in his own graphical
construction of the catenary curve -- the pendent
shape of a suspension bridge chain.
"The Four Volumes taken together," says Lardner,
provide the background in natural philosophy that
"is expected in all well educated persons." And
William James was on his way to becoming one of the
most educated persons on this planet.
James started out by studying art. He tired of that
and went into science, then anatomy, then medicine.
Next he went off to the Amazon to do field studies
in biology with Louis Agassiz. He came back and
worked in physiology. That led to an interest in
psychology. He broke with 19th-century academic
tradition and created a new practical school of
No sooner had he put a revolution in psychological
thinking into motion than he moved off into
religion. Psychology, he said, had come to seem
like a "nasty little subject." James moved on to
other links in a long unfolding chain of ideas.
His essay The Varieties of Religious
Experience is stunningly objective reporting
of the most subjective thing that could happen to
any person. Then James took up philosophy. It is as
a philosopher that he laid his final mark on
Yesterday I touched the first link in the chain of
James's thinking -- a boy's book on mechanics. I
know this process, this movement from concrete
forms to their own abstractions. James began with
graphical art -- beauty that presents itself to the
eye. Yesterday I held one end of the catenary, the
chain, that James followed into subtler catenations
within his own rich mind.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds